Judith McMonigle Flynn juggled the box of old linens, tripped over the cat, and flew headlong down the stairs. The box bounced, sending napkins, doilies, and tablecloths flying everywhere. The cat raced past Judith and disappeared into the entry hall. Linens floated like small ghosts over the handcarved banister, the carpeted stairs, the guest registration desk by the front door. Yelling, crying, and swearing at the same time, Judith found herself in a heap on the first landing with one foot stuck behind the dieffenbachia planter.
"Sweetums!" she screamed, moving only enough to see if any bones were broken. "You filthy little beast! Where are you?"
There was no response. The linens were scattered all over the floor, the box was upside down next to the elephant-foot umbrella stand. Determining that she'd suffered no serious damage, Judith managed to extricate her leg from behind the potted plant. Then she sat up. Sweetums appeared from somewhere near the door to the downstairs bathroom. He had one of Grandma Grover's embroidered table napkins draped like a shawl over his tubby little orange-and-white body.
"You horrible cat," Judith said, sitting down on the second step and yanking the napkin off Sweetums. The cat kept going, his plumelike tail swishing in disdain.
"Where are you?" called a voice from the kitchen. "It's me."
"Me" was Judith's cousin Renie, more formally known as Serena Grover Jones.
"I'm in the entryway," Judith called, rubbing her knee. For once, she wasn't happy to see Renie. The visit boded ill, as Judith knew from her cousin's phone call an hour earlier. Some wag had said that there was no such thing as an accident; maybe Judith had trippedon purpose, hoping to break a leg and put herself out of Renie's reach.
"Hi," Renie said with forced cheer and a look of surprise. "What are you doing with a doily on your head?"
"Shut up," Judith snapped. "Here, give me a hand."
Renie lifted Judith to her feet; Judith removed the doily and tossed it aside in disgust. "Sweetums tripped me," she said, rubbing at her back.
"Rotten cat," Renie murmured, looking around the entry hall and into the living room. "Where'd he go?"
"Who knows?" Judith retorted, limping in the direction of the kitchen. "Who cares? Outside to eat some birds, I suppose. I wish we had buzzards in this neighborhood. Maybe they'd eat him."
"Your mother saw an ostrich this morning," Renie said, following Judith through the dining room.
"Right," Judith said. "Yesterday it was a sabertoothed tiger."
"They've been extinct for quite a while," Renie noted.
"Sometimes I think Mother's brain has been extinct for quite a while," Judith replied, cautiously lowering herself into a chair at the kitchen table. "She's becoming delusional."
"Do you really think so, coz?" Renie asked as she helped herself to a mug of coffee, then gestured at Judith with the pot. "Want a refill?"
"Why not?" Judith sighed. "And while you're at it, grab me a couple of aspirin from the windowsill and a glass of water."
"Still hurting, huh?" Renie said with sympathy. "Are you sure you didn't break or sprain anything?"
"I don't think so," Judith said, then swallowed the aspirin in one gulp. "It's these damned hips. Maybe Dr. Alfonso is right."
"It was that stupid pogo stick when we were kids," Renie said, sitting across the table from Judith. "I was never foolish enough to tryit."
"You were too chicken," Judith responded.
"Maybe," Renie allowed. "In some ways, you've always been more daring than I am."
"But less outspoken," Judith said with a smirk.
Renie shrugged. "We each have our strengths and our weaknesses. Maybe that's why we get along most of the time."
"Maybe so." Judith stretched her legs out under the table. The cousins had both been only children two years apart, but they'd grown up as close as sisters, maybe closer. At the end of a play day, their mothers could send one of them home. Neither Gertrude Grover nor Aunt Deb hesitated to lay down the law when the cousins started bickering. Unfortunately, the two sisters-in-law didn't apply the same rules to themselves, but had continued arguing into their dotage.
"I have to admit," Judith said, "that Mother likes to tease. She's definitely more forgetful, but the delusions are new."
"My mother isn't as dotty as yours," Renie said, "but her martyr's crown gets heavier each day. She acts so pitiful that I should wear one of those signs that says, 'I'm Okay-You're Really Okay.' Reassuring her is an unending chore."
"Old age is very sad," Judith lamented. "And we're working our way there, coz. That's why I hate to go back to Dr. Alfonso. I'm afraid he's going to tell me I need a hip replacement."
"So what?" Renie countered. "Lots of people get them. Look at my mother."
Judith grimaced. "I have looked. She's practically confined to that wheelchair."
"Well..." Renie looked askance. "That's because she doesn't try hard enough. Mom babies herself. And she wouldn't keep up with the therapy. It's much better if I wait on her instead."
"I suppose we'll be just as bad when we get to betheir age," Judith said. "If we ever get to be their age."
"They may outlive us," Renie said with a little shake of her head. "To tell the truth, they're remarkable old girls."
"Mmm," Judith murmured.
"Bill's actually looking forward to being put in a nursing home," Renie said. "He swears he has one picked out where the nurses wear long black stockings with seams and garter belts, just like in the porno flicks."
"Bill is crazier than his neurotic patients," Judith declared. "Maybe he should give up his part-time shrink practice. What's he doing, limiting it to nymphomaniacs?"
Mary Richardson Daheim is a Seattle native with a communications degree from the University of Washington. Realizing at an early age that getting published in books with real covers might elude her for years, she worked on daily newspapers and in public relations to help avoid her creditors. She lives in her hometown in a century-old house not unlike Hillside Manor, except for the body count. Daheim is also the author of the Alpine mystery series and the mother of three daughters.